Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick: "I walk a moral tightrope between life and death"

Pioneering vet Professor Noel Fitzpatrick fitted Oscar the cat with bionic paws - now he wants to try his techniques on humans...

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Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick: "I walk a moral tightrope between life and death"
Written By
Ellie Austin

Oscar the cat was enjoying a sun-soaked nap in a Jersey field when his two hind paws were sliced off by a combine harvester. His owners rushed him to the local vet but the prognosis wasn't good. Notoriously indestructible, mangled moggies frequently survive on three legs, but rarely two.

It was at this point that vet Noel Fitzpatrick, known for his cutting-edge prosthetic work on small animals, received a phone call. “The vet rang me up from Jersey and said, ‘Is this possible?’ I said, ‘Yes’. It was a life or death situation.”

Oscar was immediately flown to Fitzpatrick Referrals, a multi-million-pound practice in Surrey where work had already begun on a bespoke pair of bionic paws. Inspired by the way that deer antler bones grow through skin, Fitzpatrick (who featured in BBC1’s Bionic Vet in 2010, and whose work is profiled in a new Channel 4 series) then drilled the implants into Oscar’s ankles during a three-hour, world-first operation.

Four years later, Oscar is happily pouncing on anything that moves. The operation saved his life and pioneered prosthetic technology that Fitzpatrick hopes will be “commonplace 20 years from now”.

“My life goal is something called One Medicine,” he explains in a gruff Irish brogue. “If I’m saving a life, that knowledge should perforate the umbrella of human medicine. How many people would benefit if Oscar’s technology was translated immediately into the human field? Hundreds of thousands. The reason it doesn’t is because human and veterinary doctors don’t talk enough.”

Why not? He pauses. “I need to be very careful here because I don’t want to alienate human doctors. I think it’s a lack of understanding. My technology for limb amputation has leapfrogged theirs. I do hip replacements on chihuahuas... If that implant is more advanced than what’s available for a 15-year-old boy with osteosarcoma [bone cancer] in his leg, why would we not want that technology to go to the boy? Doctors need to listen to what’s happening in veterinary medicine right now, because it could circumvent a lot of difficulties.”

His approach to animal testing is similarly pragmatic. It should, he explains, be one element of an ever-expanding symbiosis between human and animal health research. "Without animals, your granny can't have a knee replacement and you can't take a pain-killer, because it's all used on them first.. The concept of One Medicine is not that humans or animals should be sacrificed at the whim of the other."

Fitzpatrick’s need to go the extra mile to preserve animal life stems from a childhood spent on a farm in the Irish Midlands. However, he is at pains to stress that any life-lengthening treatment prescribed must comply with his strict moral code. "Human doctors do not have the ability to turn out the lights, and we do," he says with almost evangelical fervour. "That weights heavy on my shoulders as I walk that narrow, moral tightrope between life and death."

Although Fitzpatrick cannot put an animal to sleep without its ‘guardian’s’ consent (“I don’t think you ‘own’ a living creature. You’re a 'guardian' of it for that moment in time in your little bit of the world”) he bases his advice on how to proceed around what he calls an ethical “line in the sand”.

“If I can provide pain-free, functional quality of life, it’s morally right to do the procedure. If you don’t have that reasonable hope, it’s not morally right to put the animal through it.

“I’m hoping that Channel 4 are brave enough to put euthanasia into one of the later episodes. When was the last time you saw that happen on national television in the UK? In 21st-century Britain we need a statement that says, ‘You know what? We do have a moral responsibility for animals’.”

Whatever the outcome of a visit to Fitzpatrick Referrals, treatment doesn’t come cheap. You wouldn’t expect it to – the practice is the most advanced small animal facility in the country, with inpatients housed in television-equipped kennels that look out over the Surrey countryside.

The surgery, though, is also committed to pro bono work, which is how Oscar received his prosthetic paws. Although Fitzpatrick refuses to confirm any figures, the procedure (including the development of the implants) reportedly cost somewhere in the region of £50,000. While pet insurance covered the first £4,000, it was the practice that footed the majority of the bill.

“I haven’t made a penny out of Fitzpatrick Referrals since we started. We’ve spent £1.5m of our money on research into solutions that didn’t previously exist. It’s my choice. Money makes no difference to my life whatsoever. When I signed up to be a vet, I wanted to look after all animals. Nobody can take that decision away from me. We live in a free world and if I choose to operate on a hedgehog, I choose a hedgehog.” 

The Supervet starts tonight at 8:00pm on Channel 4. 


 


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